Hucksters – Tracking History

Hucksters - AI Stock Photo

By Thomas A. Bergbauer, Retired Courier-Post Editor

They came through the alleyways and down the streets. They came like a parade at intervals hawking their wares. Those were the hucksters of our day.

I have received many phone calls and emails asking me about hucksters and would if I do a column on them. I had done one long ago and am happy to revive it for those who fondly remember them.

Fifty or sixty years ago hucksters were a big part of the Camden scene. In the spring, summer and fall they were seen more frequently on the streets than in winter. Today we hop in the car and head for the super market to buy what we need. But in the 30s and 40s and even the 50s a lot of residents could not do this because of a lack of private transportation.

For those who lived near the Giant Tiger (an early super market) in South Camden or the Baltimore Market (the first modern super market in the city) that was once located across from the old Sears building, it was easy to do your shopping and cart it home. But for those not living near these stores it was a task to haul their packages home on a bus.

Hucksters were the product of the depression and for many years brought foods and goods to consumers confined for the most part in their area of the city. They were as constant as the northern star in their movements to provide a service to the average American family who were trapped in the inner city during that era.

The clothes prop man came through the alleys passing backyards where housewives were hanging out the day's wash. He marched along, clothes props over one shoulder and a bag containing clothespins and lines slung over the other. His cadence steady as he sang “clothessss prrrops.”

Busy housewives waited on washing day (usually Monday) for the javelle water man. Javelle water, you say? What was that? Well according to the encyclopedia Javelle water or Javel water, is an aqueous solution of sodium or potassium hypochlorite and before the days of store-bought bleach, women used it in their washing machines.

It was originally made near the French town of Javelle (now part of Paris) and was the first chemical bleach used in 1785. It was produced by passing chlorine gas through a water solution of potash potassium carbonate. The solution was usually made by local independent retailers who peddled the strong-smelling solution daily. It was manufactured locally by many enterprising merchants.

We must not forget another important huckster—the knife sharpening man. He trudged through the streets and alleyways lugging his knife and scissors sharpening machine on his back, which he removed and placed on the ground when confronted by a customer and worked the grinding wheel with his foot on a peddle.

In the afternoon as you sat on your front step the pretzel man, pulling his wagon filled with the beloved Philadelphia pretzels, would come down the street. He was an old gent with a slight limp who rarely smiled as he smeared mustard on your pretzel with a wooden stick.

He could have been 50 or 60 years old, but he was old in the eyes of us young kids. No matter what age or how far he traveled with his wagon, he was a welcome enjoyment for all of us.

A t least a couple of times a week the waffle man arrived, clanging his bell, which was mounted on the side of his large wagon drawn by a horse. He did not have to bark his wares, just bang on that bell, which was loud enough to draw the attention of residents two blocks away. His waffles were freshly made on the site, tasty and warm and with a sprinkle of powered sugar they were just right.

Another hot item was horseradish. About once a week a man with a white pushcart with a grinder mounted on top plied his trade through the city streets. Housewives would rush to the streets drawn by the huckster's cry of “horseradishhhh.” His product, strong enough to clear the sinuses for a week, was put in containers provided by the women.

Let us not forget the fruit, produce and fish peddlers that brought their wares to the neighborhoods and above all on hot summer days we kids waited anxiously for the iceman. Before the modern-day refrigerator most families had iceboxes. These were wooden boxes that looked like a refrigerator and at the top there was a place for a block or two of ice.” Usually the iceman had access to the homes rear door where he entered and placed the ice in the top of the box,” recalls our local historian, Bob Shapleigh of Haddon Heights. To carry the ice the deliveryman used “tongs” to transport the ice.” A pan sat under the box behind a swinging panel to catch the water from the melting ice,” he points out.” Some (boxes) had a funnel attached to a hose to channel the water to a container in the basement,” he says.

It was at this time that the neighborhood kids would hang around the truck and the iceman would chip off pieces to give to them.

This brings us back to some enterprising summer activities for kids. One of the most popular huckstering jobs for kids was selling snowballs. Anyone could get a wagon, some Kool-Aid, a block of ice and paper cone-shaped cups. Once equipped a kid could sell snowballs for a nickel apiece.

But the main thing you needed was a snowball scrapper and if you were lucky enough to own one or knew someone who had one, you were set to go in business.

The parade of hucksters was endless. Now they exist only in our memories. Their cry is now drowned out by the sound of the automobiles headed for the supermarket or the shopping centers.


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